Author's Notes: Just a little bridge story in the Legend of Vascaroon series. Specifically it occurs between Hyne's War and Eden's Chosen. Hope this ties you over.
Echoes of War
Keep walking, a small voice in his head whispered, and for a second Nida almost obeyed. The fact that it was almost reflective to listen to the melodious voice that echoed in his mind was what made him come to a full stop. Unfortunately that stop had clearly not been expected by the person who had called out, because half a heart-beat later he felt someone ram into his back at nearly full speed. Had trained reflexes not kicked in he might have found himself stumbling forward a few steps, but as it was Nida's legs slid easily into a stance to absorb the force even as it hit him, preventing him from taking more than a single step forward.
"Oh geez! I'm so sorry Instructor. I didn't expect you to stop so suddenly. I thought you were..."
He would have hushed her sooner but shortly after coming to Galbadia he had opted to follow Squall's example and reinforce the distance he cultivated between himself and those around him with a kind of stoicism. Not everyone accepted it—there were a few notable exceptions mostly because they had known him before all of this had started—but it was an effective enough method to protect himself from people prying into his business. But the charade of resigned involvement with people required his response to be slowly turning and looking at the girl, letting his arms cross over his chest as he looked down at her silently. Her rambling trailed off as she met his gaze and she quickly jumped back a step and then looked abashedly down at her feet.
The brief moment that their eyes met had been enough for him to put a name to the voice. Cadet Kiera Morandi, second year by her uniform, and the only reason he knew it was because they had been introduced before, at a meeting during his third month here at Galbadia Garden. Even though it had been nearly a year and a half since that meeting he still knew her face, just as he knew those of the other five students that he'd met that day. Morandi was one of a number of cadets of Zebalgan blood who had stepped forward and revealed themselves after the end of what was now known as Megill's War. Since the revelation that the fabled heritage still thrived at the beginning of the war, there had been a stigma upon those who willingly revealed that blood, or those who disappeared shortly after Boyce's call for reuniting the people. Many were the lives destroyed by accusations of Zebalgan blood—one Galbadian politician had even been forced to retire to the relative quiet of Winhill in the face of public outcry after a public accusation by a rival—and the military of Galbadia flat out refused to accept suspected Zebalgans. There had been few refuges for the revealed Zebalgans, many of whom had plead to acting to some degree against their will because of the mysterious powers that Boyce had exerted over the people. Most had attempted to withdraw back into anonymity by moving far away from their original homes. Others had sought to establish simple settlements in Centra, granted land and materials only if they agreed to submit to the watchful eye of Esthar and frequent reviews by Garden or Galbadian military forces.
There had been a few, though, that had taken a public promise of safety from then General Leonhart. Youths of requisite age were always welcomed in a Garden, no matter their bloodlines or backgrounds. Whether one succeeded or failed depended on their effort, not their parentage. So they had come to the Gardens, openly declared their bloodlines, and dared anyone to turn them away or lash out at them for something they could not control. At the Gardens these students had been given over into the mentorship of senior level SeeDs best able and willing to deal with them. In Trabia there was Selphie. In Balamb, Quistis. And the Galbadian Garden counsel had turned their students over to him.
"Cadet Morandi, you are aware that it is prohibited to run in the halls?"
"Of course, sir. It's just that... Well... May I speak with you in private, sir?"
Siren, for one, was hardly amused by the suggestion. Something, likely as not the treatment of Sylph at the hands of the Zebalgan Sorceress, had jaded her. Or how they had sought to use and abuse him. Or maybe, as Michel Veringas, the foremost authority on Guardian Forces had suggested when she'd asked, she might have been consciously trying to relieve Nida's own mixed emotions by mirroring them, forcing him to recognize how ridiculous his hatred based on something as uncontrollable as blood really was.
So, after a moment to glance at his watch, Nida nodded and gestured for the cadet to follow him. This time of day one of the nearby classrooms would be empty and far closer than the office allotted to him as an Instructor, or the larger one that served his role as SeeD Commander. All he could do was hope the matter wasn't going to require his function in either of t hose manners; problems that needed him in either of those capacities were more stressful than those which called upon him to advise kids through the seemingly giant problems of their teens.
The second they were in the emptied classroom with the door closed, Nida could finally pick up the smaller signs that had been nagging at him and Siren more. In the hustle and bustle in the halls it was almost hard to hear his own thoughts, much less his footsteps. Yet, there, in the silence, Siren called his attention to the details. The not-quite tears in the girl's eyes. The hurried edge to her breathing the way her fingers were playing with her cuffs, more than simple nervousness could account for. The whole of it found him dropping the facade almost immediately.
"Kiera, whatever you say here is between you and me unless I deem it necessary for either of our safeties to go to the Headmaster or higher. I'm here to help."
The words, coupled with his pulling a chair out from behind a desk for her was all it took to start an almost expected torrent of emotion. Not quite tears became full on weeping, and as she sat he was careful only to report quiet, soothing sounds until Kiera seemed to recognize his restraint and started to restrain herself.
"It's okay if you need to cry. We all need to sometimes. It's sort of the body's way of releasing emotional stress. You should never feel ashamed to..."
"There isn't time!" She protested with a sudden intensity. "Sir, I... I need to report a violation of rule 23.1 of the Garden Code of Behavioral Conduct. I know I could bring this to any instructor but it..."
"Has to do with blood," Nida completed for her.
It was hardly unexpected. From what he'd heard about the latest crops of cadets, they were rather outspoken against Zebalgans. Sooner rather than later he was going to have to find a way to take the student body to task on this without it coming back to bite a student in the ass. That, in the end, was one of the hardest parts about dealing with bullying. Call out students and you might make it worse in any environment. In a military one it could be as destructive to group cohesion as letting such actions continue.
"There are a variety of ways I can help you, Kiera, but you need to understand the repercussions of each method. We could."
"Sir, I am not here to report on my behalf. It's my dormmate. Cadet Rycos. I found her last night after returning from a late study session on infiltration methods, she was so quiet when I got back. Jenna's a real light sleeper. I hate waking her. It's part of the reason I applied for infiltration training so early, sir. I want to wake her up less, she doesn't nod off easy. Nightmares and all that. Anyway, normally she greets me, so when she didn't I went to look in on her. I found her in our bathroom, crying in the tub. Bruised all over and bleeding from several places."
Bruises alone could be explained away, rather easily in truth. But no student was let to leave a combat lesson without wounds closed by potion treated bandaging. There were only two possible origins: self-infliction and being willfully hurt by another. After all, cadets of their level were forbidden from the training grounds without an instructor or SeeD to accompany them. In matters of self-infliction, Nida would talk to the student and turn them over to the medical staff for additional counseling. But Kiera was reporting this as a case of willful infliction of harm on a student, meaning on some level there was another student behind it.
"Did she tell you anything?"
"No, but I could tell she was beaten, sir. I've had enough combat training to know that when I see it. I know who did it, sir."
"The concern, for now, is on my talking to Jenna. Where is she at this time of day?"
All the tension in the girl seemed to come to a head then. Yet she didn't break down, didn't cry. Instead she met his eyes, level and hard and almost daring him to doubt her.
"Combat training with Weapons Master Kethal, sir. The weapons master who regularly makes an 'example' out of his students, sir. For 'laziness' even though we arrive first and leave last. For 'disobedience' when we ask how correcting our stances into wrong ones will help us. Who regularly puts one of us up against three others even when we clearly aren't ready for that. We try to learn, sir. Many of us are silent, we take it because complaining won't get us anywhere. We gain respect by taking it without flinching. Most are on our side, but some of the new cadets... And when Kethel trains us one on one... All of us come back worse. Jenna, well, sir to be honest she isn't the best fighter. I think she's for magic or intel, sir. And he's the worst on her. Which makes new cadets or the ones that really hate us think they can hurt her easy. So... So things like last night happen."
It was a lot, almost too much to hear. If he'd known about this, he'd have handled it before it got to this point. As it was, all he could do was damage control.
"Where are you supposed to be right now, Cadet?"
The confidence in Kiera's expression fell when he asked. Was she worried that he didn't believe how, or didn't care? A shame. He was going to have to bring all the Zebalgan students in soon to talk to them about this and more. He'd neglected that duty too long. Kiera was also going to have to get something to tell her what she'd done was right, albeit late. For now, though, there was a far greater concern.
"Combat training, sir."
"And you should be there," he said at length, pulling an ever present pad from his pocket. It was a matter of moments to write her a late pass that made it abundantly clear that he'd sought her out to deliver a message from her ill father, telling her what he wrote as he did so she knew what she might be questioned about. That made the look of worry change to one of hope.
"Hurry off now," he said as he handed the pass over. "Can't have him thinking I kept you too long."
"Sir?" she asked, smiling up at him.
"Don't worry. I'll handle this."
No sooner had she left the room than Nida found himself reaching for the GF in his mind. All it took was an instruction and an intended receiver, and then he was casting her from him, knowing what he needed would be there when he needed it most.
He took a more round about path to the training facilities than was strictly necessary to give Kiera a chance to arrive and Kethel to read the note before he made his entrance. When he did slip in it was quietly, by one of the lesser used doors, and while putting all of his experience and training in infiltration to the test. Unsurprisingly he managed to make his way into the room without remark or notice. In fact, it was a while before anyone seemed to notice him at all, and when they did it was the students first. No one dared to interrupt the lesson to point him out, which meant he had plenty of time to observe and form his own opinions about Kethel's behavior. And none of it was too far off from Kiera's conclusions.
His place continued to go unnoticed by Kethel as the main doors of the room burst open before the arrogant presence of Seifer Almasy. Nida's second all but swaggered into the room, the Hyperion in its holster at his side, and Nida's metal training bo over his shoulders. His smirk was one of supreme confidence as he strode purposefully through the room. Even Kethel couldn't help but stop and stare as Seifer made his way, not around, but through the middle of the area claimed for the class, only coming to a stop when he reached the dead center of the mat. The absolute certainty that he belonged there which he exuded was almost impressive, and had been at the core of his acceptance into Galbadia Garden life. As a high ranking SeeD and a war hero it was almost as if his crimes as Ultimecia's knight had been swept clean. When he came to Galbadia Garden he hadn't asked for respect, he'd demanded it. The fact that Nida had deferred to him in some situations had gone a long way to selling the point, but ultimately it was moments and scenes like this that sealed his position. Few people had the right to question Seifer's behavior these days, and even Nida—one of the most powerful members of that group—tended to avoid that headache.
He is talented at inflicting them, isn't he? Siren's voice echoed in his mind as Nida felt the charm that housed her burn against skin as the GF settled back into her mithral charm. He refused to acknowledge me until he had finished a ribald joke, and when I delivered the message he did not believe me at first.
I can't blame him, Siren. For some reason he has faith that I manage things properly around here, or tell him when they're important for him to notice. I've failed here, just like I've failed to make him pay attention to the details himself.
To that the spirit didn't respond, at least not verbally. Instead Nida felt a warm feeling rush over him, Siren's way of comforting him. Not that it worked. How had he missed this? Chances were because he didn't want to see it. Now, though, he strode forward silently but confident. The way Seifer's eyes followed him, the way he smiled, the way he shifted his grip on Nida's weapon made Kethal look around. Too soon Nida found his eyes meeting those of the weapons master, and it took everything to give him a reassuring nod. Better not to give the game up too soon. Seifer was clearly—to Nida at least—furious, and Nida had to address that issue first.
"Commander Nomura, Lieutenant Commander Almasy!" Kethel greeted them. "What brings you to my class this afternoon?"
"Just an urge to stretch our muscles and give the young blood a show," Nida said, meeting Seifer's gaze evenly. All it took was that glance and him extending his arm for his weapon for Seifer to get the point. "You don't mind, do you?"
"Mind? No! About time these kids saw how a real fight works. Some of them are too lazy to get it."
At that Nida turned his head towards Kethel, raising an eyebrow questioningly as he heard a sudden movement followed by a cold, silent weight slapping into place in his outstretched hand. Only Seifer would throw a weapon at a potential sparring partner when they weren't looking.
"Oh? Some discipline issues? Well, that's quickly dealt with. I need to warm up, if you don't mind..."
"Huh? Sure Commander. How 'bout I..."
"I can select likely students," Nida insisted, twirling the metal bo into position without a thought as he turned to face the students standing at attention. With a small gesture all fell into ease, and as he eyed the line he made sure to let his eyes linger on Kiera. The girl was smart, he had to give her that, because by the second time he looked at her, she was blinking oddly.
Siren, focus, he instructed as he allowed his eyes to rove the line.
Her eyes linger to the left of her. Three blinks. To the right of her, on blink. To the right, seven.
Even as Siren spoke Nida pointed out the indicated students, not bothering to glance back at Kiera to be certain. Siren told him plainly enough of the wonder in her eyes. Some day, he thought, she'd learn to do the same, but only if he stepped in now.
"You three... Seifer could stand to stretch some. With three, one of you might manage to hit him."
They were young, and arrogant enough to be problems for the future with that arrogance. Nida mentally gave Seifer two minutes to have them all flat on their asses. Anything more and he would be tempted to send his second back to Balamb for a week to regain some time with a serious sparring partner. Squall would likely be amused by that. Granted, if Seifer took longer to give the class a lesson in how to use multiple attacks against each other, well, all for the better.
"What about you, sir?" Kethel asked, and Nida smiled as he turned back to look at the instructor.
"Well, Kethel, I need a bit more to get me moving for a fight with Seifer. He can warm up by smiling in a mirror. I actually want to show the kids a real fight so... Would you be so kind as to partner me?"
Kethel blinked a few times in shock, his mouth even gaping like a fish's for a moment. It would have been funny were Nida not so serious.
"I'm not sure if I should..."
"Come now, you've kept in shape since the war, correct? Proved that sword of yours against savage, full-blooded Zebalgan soldiers. What chance could a half-blood like me stand?"
The last time Nida had seen eyes to go so wide had been when Zell nearly choked to death at a meal out in Deling where Nida had been the first one at a full table of the orphanage gang to be recognized by their waitress. As much as they'd tried to avoid it, Nida's and Irvine's images had been plastered all over the media in connection to the war. Irvine as the mysterious hero of fate and grandson of the enemy leader, and Nida has the man responsible for 'nearly single-handedly annihilating the main ruling council.
"Sir, I don't..."
"Try someone your own size on for a change," Nida calmly told the man off before leaping forward with his bo at the ready. Kethel barely had time to get the practice sword he wore out and up to block Nida's overhand strike.
He didn't give the man a second to recover. The bo shifted in his grip, one side falling as Nida took a half step back. It wasn't much, but it was enough for him to thrust inward with the base of his weapon, a blow aimed for Kethel's gut that he couldn't move to block in time and so left him doubled over in pain. Not that Nida let it end there. Kethel clearly hadn't let things stop where they should have. Siren had pointed out the girl that looked like holding her stance was painful, a girl he only faintly remembered as being Jenna Rycos of Dollet. The very thought of her injuries, of what had been done to her was enough to make Nida bring his knee up, hard, into Kethel's descending face. There was a crack, one easily audible over the sound of a body slamming onto the mat. Seifer had taken one down, easily and likely without pain. Nida, though, didn't let Kethel fall. Instead he had shifted the grip on his bo and caught the falling man bodily on it, letting him double over the metal. Immediately Nida shifted his weight just enough to set himself falling backwards, dragging Kethel with him. He was in enough control of his fall to curl up. Kethel was not, and so when Nida's back hit the mat and he rolled, bringing his legs up to thrust out against Kethel's body. The bo pulled back just enough to let the momentum fling the body of the combat instructor away from him.
Two soft thumps, one after the other, and Nida was certain one of them was another victim of Seifer. Good. Let them learn. Already Nida was rolling back onto his shoulders so he could fling himself to his feet, the heavy and awkward weight of the bo only slightly hampering him. Without hesitation he twisted, weapon raised in an offensive posture. Defense was pointless now, Kethel had dropped the sword when Nida had kneed him in the face, and he was intending to make this painful. Humiliating. Frustrating.
"Get up," he growled as he watched Kethel laying on the mat.
"Get up!" he shouted, even as a third body hit the mat by Seifer. "Stop being so lazy and haul your sorry ass to your feet. Or can't you follow a simple order? Maybe if I smack you around a bit more you'll realize your place here."
"And what place is that?"
Slowly Nida made his way toward where Kethel was laying, and he calmly rested the tip of his bo against the man's neck.
"I'm not entirely sure," he found himself admitting, putting a bit of pressure into the weapon and refusing to smile as he saw the fear flash across the man's eyes. "But I do know one thing. It isn't here. It isn't in any Garden."
"Don't understand? I don't give a fuck," he responded, pulling his weapon back and turning away from him.
"He means haul your ass out of here," Seifer sighed, sounding put out to have had to explain things. "You aren't welcome here, you aren't welcome at Balamb, you aren't welcome at Trabia. None of the Gardens want a bigoted fool who encourages students to abuse others. To put it simply, you're not going to work in this business again. We'll see to that. You could, I don't know, become a garbage collector. If the trash will take you."
"You can't do this!" Kethel protested, and Nida whirled on his heel to glare at him.
"You're wrong about that. There is far, far more that I can do. I could give you over to the what is sure to be gentle attentions of the children you have abused. I could report you to the Inter-Garden Council, which I would point out I know most of the members of and will have your job and maybe your head. I could haul you before Commander Leonhart and explain what you've done, and since you would be directly countermanding one of his orders I don't think he'll be easy on you. Or, and this one is a personal favorite, I could give you to Seifer to deal with. He might be nice and only kick your ass worse than I did. He might be annoyed by some recent order I've given him, or behind on his paperwork, which could find you scarred worse than Leonhart. Or, and Almasy I hope you're listening because this is the one I'd personally advise you on, Seifer could take you to the Zebalgan Governance Council down in Centra and give you to them with an explanation of why and Garden's blessing in your punishment. It would win him some esteem in their eyes despite being a former knight, and I'm sure they could come up with some fitting revenge. So tell me, Kethel, would you prefer one of those, or will you take the merciful option I've given you?"
"Merciful? You call this merciful? I've been doing this for years! I've never done anything but combat training. I don't know how to..."
"I don't care," Nida snapped. "You should have thought about that earlier."
"What are you going to do about training these cadets then!?"
"Seifer, remove him," he said instead of responding, turning back to the assembled cadets. "Pack him and have him out of here in two hours. We'll speak with the Headmaster later. Oh, and clear up your schedule for the next few weeks for the periods where there are combat training. We'll be splitting them until we find a suitable replacement."
There wasn't really a response from Seifer, just a brief chuckle that Siren caught and carried back to him. Nida just ignored it, turning his attention fully to the youths before him.
"Let's get something straight, here and now," he said, slipping into a full attention stance as he met each cadet's eyes in turn. "I will not allow for the kind of behavior that Kethel has tolerated. If any of you so much as thinks about touching another student or harming them outside of your training sessions or sanctioned sparring, you will face me. And I don't mean for discipline. I mean you will stand out here on the floor and you will learn, bruise for bruise, what it feels like. Before you lay a finger on another student, just think about what I did to Kethel, or what Seifer did to your fellow students. I'm sure that will cure the itch."
He was met with silence, which was nothing more than he would have asked for.
"Now, Cadet Morandi, head into the equipment room and grab quarter staffs for your classmates. We're going to start you all at the basics, seeing as I can't trust any of you with the others until you prove yourselves to me."